The coco pinchard boxset.., p.31
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       The Coco Pinchard Boxset: 5 bestselling romantic comedies in one!, p.31

           Robert Bryndza

  “This is for a puppy passport,” I said, going red. “He won't keep still and the stool isn’t high enough.”

  Xavier suggested that he and I squatted down on either side of the stool in the booth, and made a little platform for Rocco with our upturned hands. Xavier then used his nose to press the button. He was so kind and funny and I didn't mind in the least being squashed up against him in the photo booth. Whilst we waited for the pictures to be developed, he had a cuddle with Rocco.

  “He likes you,” I said, as Rocco licked his hand.

  “You managed to get him off the little milks?”

  “Not yet, he refuses to eat anything else. He clamps his mouth shut.”

  Xavier rummaged around and pulled some little coffee biscuits out of his jeans.

  “Can I try?”

  “Sure,” I said.

  He offered one to Rocco. The little shit gave a woof of excitement, took it obediently and wolfed down another four in quick succession! I was mortified.

  “Little dogs are actors, they like to play to the crowd,” said Xavier kindly.

  “Now you must think I’m this crazy woman who jumps you at parties and tells lies about her dog’s diet for attention… both of which aren’t true. The thing is, I got dumped a few weeks back and it threw me, and everything has seemed to unravel since.”

  Xavier went to say something but the photos shot out of the machine into the little slot. They were perfect. Little Rocco was sat almost floating mid-air and looking directly into the camera.

  “Thank you,” I said. “I couldn't have done it without you.”

  “Coco,” he said, “you don’t have to explain yourself to me. You’re lovely. I’m sorry about the other night, I got carried away, I didn’t mean to scare you with my… well…”

  “What are you doing for Christmas?” I said.

  “Going home to my parents in Portsmouth. I’m renewing my Student Railcard for the trip, hence the photo booth.”

  “Student Railcard? That makes me feel old,” I said.

  “Mature student!”

  We paused and smiled at each other.

  “Look. Maybe we could walk our dogs sometime?” he said. “Just dog walking, no pressure.”

  He gave me a card with his phone number on.

  As he walked off, I admired him; all six foot of him. Rocco barked, bringing me out of my thoughts and reminding me we had more to do.

  We got to the vet around four and she didn't stop laughing for a full five minutes. All I needed was a photo of Rocco, any photo, it didn't need to be an official passport photo from a photo booth.

  We got the puppy passport on the spot, filled in and stamped. I felt so proud of him with his own passport.

  When we got home in the dark, it was snowing again, harder, and the temperature was dropping. I'm so excited about going now, I just hope the weather doesn't spoil it for us. The motorways above London are closed but so far, the South looks okay.

  There was a strange slurring message from Meryl on my answer phone, something about a fifty pence coin talking to her. I called back but the phone rang out.

  I'm pleased to hear that you’re having fun at the Ice Hotel in Lapland and that there is plenty of Schnapps. Have you met anyone noteworthy to share your thermal sleeping bag with?

  Wednesday 22nd December 06.11

  TO: [email protected]

  Tony rang to say that Meryl had to be sectioned in the early hours of this morning! He found her outside at 3 a.m. disinfecting the driveway in her dressing gown. When he asked her to come back inside, she tried to suffocate him by stuffing a dishcloth down his throat screaming, “The Queen is coming for Christmas!”

  She hasn't slept in four days trying to get everything prepared for the Sandringham Christmas, and the lack of sleep made her hallucinate. She flushed all the money from her purse down the toilet because she thought the Queen’s head was talking, criticising her skills as a hostess. She’s been sedated in the Psychiatric Unit at Milton Keynes General Hospital and kept under observation. Tony said that his sister and Daniel have already arrived and they are helping with Wilfred. Meryl can't have any visitors for a few days. I asked if there was anything I could do. Tony cleared his throat and then said tentatively, “Well yes, there is something you could do Coco.”

  “What is it? Anything,” I said.

  “If you could give Ethel her Christmas lunch I'd be most grateful. What with everything that’s happened and the M25 being closed southbound with the snow, I don't think I can get to her.”

  There was a crashing silence. Alarms were going off in my brain.

  “Oh… um…” I said.

  Then Daniel came on the line,

  “Hi Cokes, I know we haven’t spoken in a while, but, please,” he begged. “I know Mum drives you crazy but this is a unique situation.”

  “I know it is,” I said.

  “All the residents in her sheltered housing have gone to their families for Christmas. There won't be a warden on duty. I don't like the idea of her all alone; it’s a very rough area. What if looters break in looking for presents?”

  “I’m supposed to be…”

  “Supposed to be what?”

  “Nothing,” I said with a heavy heart. “Tell Ethel she can come here.”

  “Thank you. Thank you. I owe you big time. Merry Christmas Cokes,” he said.

  “Yeah. Merry Christmas,” I said and put the phone down.


  Wednesday 22nd December 08.44

  TO: [email protected]

  I thought about palming Ethel off on Rosencrantz, but he is working, and on Christmas Day has been invited to Oscar’s house in the Cotswolds. He sounded excited, so I didn’t mention the Ethel situation.

  I took a deep breath and phoned Marika.

  “Why don’t you bring Ethel with us?” she said, without missing a beat.

  “I wasn’t expecting you to say that!”

  “It’s no problem. I’ll call my mum to make up the camp bed.”

  “Hang on Marika,” I said. “Think carefully about what you’re suggesting. That we drag that old bag of bones across Europe for your family Christmas.”

  There was a silence.

  “I think it could be good,” she said.

  “How? This is Ethel.”

  “She could be a much-needed distraction.”

  “From what? Fun?”

  “No, a much-needed distraction for my mother. She'll go into entertaining overdrive and she won't question me too much…”

  There was another long pause.

  “Coco. I just quit my job,” she said.

  “What? As a teacher?!”

  “What other job do I do?”

  “What are you going to do?” I said. “You just got a mortgage and the teachers’ pension scheme is final salary.”

  “Okay, you’re not helping. I don't know what I’m going to do,” she said. “What I do know is I can't be a teacher anymore. More importantly, my mother can’t know about it until I work out a solution.”

  “What happened?” I said.

  “It all went wrong when I slept with that OFSTED Inspector.”

  “Well, to be fair you didn't know he was going to be inspecting your school, he was just a bloke in a bar.”

  “Exactly, but the headmistress is blaming me for the school getting a bad result. Then on the last day of term, I put a movie on for the students. Ghost, with Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze,”

  “That’s a nice film,” I said.

  “Yes… During the pottery wheel scene the Headmistress stormed into the classroom, and turned it off saying it was pornographic. She then accused me, in front of the students, of being depraved with loose morals.”

  “Don't you teach seventeen year olds?”

  “Something inside me snapped. I told her to stick her job up her fat fanny and I stormed out.”

  “What did the kids do?”

  “I heard them clapping and cheering as
I walked out of the fire exit. I then got in my car and drove home.”

  “I’m so sorry, hun,” I said.

  “I just want a nice Christmas, Coco,” she said. “My mother is like a mind reader. Having you and Ethel there will distract her, please.”

  I paused to think.

  “If bringing Ethel will give you a nice Christmas, then fine, but I’ve warned you.”

  I am cursing myself for answering Tony’s phone call this morning. If I’d just kept my phone off for a few hours, I’d have been away with Marika and home free.

  Wednesday 22nd December 15.47

  TO: [email protected]

  I picked up Marika at ten, then we drove on to The Aspidistra Sheltered Housing in Catford. Ethel was waiting outside in the blizzard. Marika jumped out and helped her in beside me.

  “'Ello sweethearts,” she said. “And little Rocco too… Thanks Marika love for ‘avin me, and you Coco for drivin’.”

  I exchanged a glance with Marika. Ethel seemed to be on her best behaviour.

  “Ooh, I like yer car Coco, what is it?” said Ethel.

  “A Land Cruiser,” I said.

  “Must ‘ave set you back a few bob,” she said, stroking the leather seat as Marika helped her with the seatbelt. “To think you could buy this from writing your books!”

  I rolled my eyes; twelve seconds was all it took for the first barbed comment.

  “Sorry to hear about Meryl,” said Marika, changing the subject.

  “Oh, she’s overdone it again,” said Ethel dismissively. “I used to ‘ave to sedate ‘er meself when she was little an’ she wouldn’t stop cleaning ‘er doll’s house. A little nip of brandy in ‘er rice pudding used to do it.”

  I drove off into the snow.

  “Ooh!” said Ethel. “Ooh what was that?”

  “I put the heated seat on for you,” I said.

  “Thank gawd for that. I thought I’d pissed meself!” she cackled. Her laugh was like ragged fingernails being dragged down a blackboard.

  We crept along the motorway, which was reduced to a whirling white mass, and got to the Channel Tunnel car train at 3 p.m. We're in a line of traffic waiting to drive up the ramp. Nevertheless, we are all in good spirits and Christmas in another country has an air of excitement about it. Maybe, just maybe, this trip could be fun after all.

  Thursday 23rd December 10.44

  TO: [email protected]

  We’re on the outskirts of Bratislava. When we emerged from the Channel Tunnel I took the first leg, driving through France and Belgium. Marika swapped in a lay-by outside Frankfurt, and drove until around seven this morning when we crossed the border into Slovakia. Ethel has been strangely quiet. I think she's a little intimidated by it all. I'm not sure if she’s really been abroad much. I know she went to the Isle of Wight in 1973.

  We stopped for breakfast in a swanky modern McDonald's in Bratislava.

  “Iss my treat girls!” said Ethel. “‘Ave whatever you want. Ooh, and see if they've got Tetley,” said Ethel.

  Marika spoke in Slovak to the girl behind the counter, who shook her head. In a practised move, Ethel pulled a teabag from her handbag and asked Marika to get her some hot water.

  “She's clever that Marika,” said Ethel. “Can you speak anything foreign?”

  “I’m quite good at French,” I said.

  “When I got evacuated up north we only learned things like how to make flaky pastry.”

  “Marika can't make flaky pastry,” I said.

  “But she can buy it pre-made,” said Ethel regretfully. “Gawd, I wish I could do it all again.”

  After we’d demolished our McBreakfasts, Marika went off to the loo and Ethel asked me how much twenty-two euros was in pounds.

  “There’s not a lot of difference now,” I said. “It’s about twenty quid.”

  “Twenty quid? I just spent twenty quid!” she spluttered. “She can’t ‘alf put it away,” she said, poking Marika’s Egg McMuffin and hash brown wrappers.

  “You said to order whatever we wanted?”

  “That was before I knew it was daylight robbery! Twenty quid for breakfast! My mother bought ‘er first two-up-two-down in Catford for thirty-five quid, and she still ‘ad change left over for a mangle.”

  “That was in 1924,” I said.

  But Ethel carried on ranting.

  “Bloody foreigners. And I thought that dog of yours only drank UHT milk?” Rocco had polished off three hash browns and a sausage patty with a hungry little bark of excitement.

  “Why did you offer to buy us all breakfast then?” I said.

  “I thought McDonald’s in the Eastern bloc would be reasonable. Didn’t that power station blowing up make it a cheap ‘oliday destination?”

  “That was Chernobyl, in the Ukraine.”

  “Twenty bloody quid,” moaned Ethel.

  At that point Marika came back.

  “‘Ello love,” smiled Ethel. “’Ave you ‘ad enough to eat? Can I get you anything else?”

  “No, thanks,” said Marika. “That was great.”

  “It was a pleasure,” grinned Ethel. “Now, you must excuse me, I need to go spend a penny.”

  “Well, don’t spend too many,” I said.

  Ethel gave me a look and shuffled off to the ladies.

  “She’s being nice, isn’t she?” said Marika.

  Me and Rocco just looked at each other.

  Thursday 23rd December 17.12

  TO: [email protected]

  Marika's mother lives in a smart three-bed flat in Nitra. It’s a beautiful town. We drove past a medieval castle high on a hill and there were breathtaking views of a snow-covered mountain called Zobor. As we pulled into the car park, we saw her building was encased in black and white striped plastic. A flurry of wind rippled up inside causing a loud crackling.

  “Is that some kind of Slovakian Christmas decoration?” said Ethel, as we unloaded our suitcases.

  “No. It’s Slovakian builders, they’re insulating the building,” explained Marika.

  We were welcomed so warmly into the flat by Marika’s mother Blazena, a huge matronly woman with a halo of curly black hair. I hadn't met Marika's stepfather Fero, who is very short, round, bald and in his sixties. He lumbered out of the bedroom drinking a bottle of beer with his shirt off. Blazena went mad shooing him back inside. Fero backed away muttering and shut the door.

  “She's telling him to get dressed properly to meet the fine English ladies,” said Marika.

  I looked at myself and Ethel in our crumpled clothes. She made it sound like Judi Dench and Maggie Smith had arrived to stay.

  Blazena gave us rib-cracking hugs. Then she stared at Marika, narrowing her eyes for a moment. I thought she might guess Marika had quit her job, but she was distracted by Fero, now wearing a shirt but still with the bottle of beer. She grabbed it off him and ushered us all into the living room.

  It was warm and beautifully decorated. The tree was covered in an exquisite set of fairy lights. The bulbs were hand painted in pale colours and cast a magical hue against the white walls. I counted seven statues of Jesus; three had tinsel adorning his crown of thorns and the biggest one on top of the television was wearing a Santa hat. Blazena sat us at a long dining table and we were given hot chicken soup, followed by roast duck, potatoes and cabbage; it was delicious. Even little Rocco was given a small bowl of duck liver that he wolfed down and then fell asleep under the Christmas tree.

  We ate and ate as Blazena talked and talked, mainly to grill Marika. She asked why hasn’t she found a husband? Is she keeping her flat clean? When is her next promotion? Marika went pale and answered as best she could. Every time the wind blew round the block of flats the plastic crackled loudly and Blazena cursed the ceiling with a waggling hand.

  Then, when we thought we could eat no more, the doorbell started ringing and a stream of elderly ladies came in bearing Christmas tidings and baked goods. It seemed every time I opened my mouth a cake or
pastry was being shoved in it.

  When it got dark, and the last of the old ladies left, myself, Marika and Ethel took Rocco for a walk in the communal garden. I looked up and saw that all the balconies outside the flats had been removed for the building work. Several of the neighbours had their balcony doors open, and one lady was sat on the step in a big coat smoking a cigarette with her legs dangling above a five-storey drop.

  “Isn't that terribly dangerous, and a health and safety risk?” I said.

  “Not in Slovakia,” said Marika. “The thought is that if you’re stupid enough to not see the huge drop outside your kitchen door, then you’re stupid enough to plunge to your death.”

  Myself, Marika, Ethel and Rocco are all sharing the guest room. I’m just lying on the bed trying to digest the five thousand calories I’ve consumed. Then in an hour we’re going to have our evening meal of goulash and dumplings. I think I’m going to pop.

  Friday 24th December 05.30

  TO: [email protected]

  I woke in the middle of the night. There was a scratching noise and a ragged whisper saying my name. I sat up in bed. A thin line of moonlight escaped from the bottom of the curtain in the guest room. Beside me (we’re sharing a double bed) Marika slept soundly. Rocco was in the gap between us lying on his back, his furry little chest slowly rising and falling. Ethel was an indistinct lump of covers on the camp bed in the corner. I thought I must have been dreaming.

  I lay back down and closed my eyes, but I heard my name again, now in a low menacing growl. My blood froze. Why wasn't Rocco waking up? I shook Marika, but she wouldn't wake up either. I sat up again and noticed the room was freezing. My breath streamed out in a mist. The knocking came again, insistent,

  “Coco, please, it's so cold,” rasped the voice.

  Despite my terror, I slowly got out of bed, and came out into the hallway. The living room and bedroom doors leading off it were closed. I jumped as a walking stick hanging on the back of the front door rattled.

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